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Cathy Free: Free Lunch: Eleven national parks in 24 hours (unless a UFO speeds things along)

Published: Tuesday, June 5 2012 2:27 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY – The last time they took a drive together, they ended up in Yellowstone for lunch. So it should come as no surprise that Jim Keeler and Dennis Millard now want to visit a few more national parks.

Eleven to be exact. In 24 hours. With no stopping except for gas breaks, photos at park entrance signs and the occasional UFO sighting above a dark highway.

“I really want to believe that UFOs are out there,” says Millard, 63, “so I’ve made it my goal to see one. We’ll be driving through some areas that are UFO magnets, so I figure this is as good a chance as any.”

That’s one reason why he agreed to tag along when his good friend, Keeler, 71, came up with a new idea for his bucket list: Why not kick off the summer by visiting nearly one dozen national parks in less than 24 hours?

“My family thinks I’m nuts,” says Millard, “but I have a good excuse. I just blame it on Jim.”

Keeler is a man with a long track record of goofy ideas. For his 70th birthday, he jumped out of an airplane and then drove three 170 mph laps around Florida’s Daytona Speedway. Four years ago, when he realized that medical problems wouldn’t allow him to realize his dream of breaking a national driving record and visiting 48 states in five days, he talked his son, Josh, into making the trip with two friends. Then, he talked me into writing about it in Free Lunch.

When I spotted another email from Keeler last week, I almost didn’t dare open it. “We’re back!” he exclaimed. “Ten national parks in 24 hours!”

Make that 11. “We’ve since decided we can fit one more – Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado,” says Keeler, sinking his teeth into a pastrami burger at California Burgers, his new favorite hangout across from West High School, near Millard’s office.

“We’re blessed in this state to have five national parks, all pretty close together,” he says. “But when I started looking at the map, I had to say, ‘Wait a minute. We could get to Great Basin, the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, the Great Sand Dunes, Teton and Yellowstone, too.’”

Thus on June 15, he and Millard will load Keeler’s Scion (nicknamed Scionara) with a cooler full of beef jerky, veggies and caffeinated soft drinks and hit the road before dawn, stopping in each park only long enough to document they were there, then making a U-turn and heading to the next stop on the list.

Replicating Clark Griswold’s quick stop at the Grand Canyon in the movie “National Lampoon's Vacation,” they’ll pull up to each entrance sign, take a quick look around and say, “OK, done that. Let’s hit it.”

“I did the math, and in 24 hours, driving an average speed of 65 mph, you can do 1,411 miles,” says Keeler.

So how many miles will this trip take?

Keeler grins. “One thousand four hundred and eleven miles.”

“There isn’t a lot of room for error, so our potty stops are going to be very fast,” admits Millard. “We figure we’ll switch off driving about every 300 miles.”

Millard, an artist who teaches at Salt Lake Community College, says he doesn’t yet regret the day five years ago he met Keeler, an art class model. “We have a lot in common, mainly that our wives put up with us and we both like to drive fast,” he says.

The later will come in handy since the men know they will likely have to take a few back roads to avoid road construction.

“We’re capable of speeding, but (Keeler’s) car isn’t,” says Millard. So if a UFO comes along and a spacecraft ride can speed things up a bit, “We’ll take it.”

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.

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